Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Wheel Inn, Old and New, Sedalia, Missouri



Yes, the Wheel Inn lives on, and these days it’s right across the road from the Missouri State Fair. (You are going to the fair, right? August 12–22—you can’t miss it! Seriously, it is a good time, and in addition to meeting some talkative politicians, you’ll walk away with a bag full of free stuff. You might even get a free flyswatter!)

But the Wheel Inn, ahhh, the Wheel Inn. Venerable, beloved, local landmark that was destroyed when MoDot widened the intersection of Highways 50 and 65, the major arteries that fed the Wheel Inn’s first six decades of existence. Memories.

By September 2007, when the Wheel Inn closed its doors and auctioned off bits and pieces of its original, vintage signage and architecture, it had gotten dang difficult to “wheel in” to the Wheel Inn—at that busy intersection, we usually had to pull in and out of parking lots of adjacent businesses. And the parking lot had gotten tiny; easier with my Civic, but tricky with the truck. Highway expansion; lots of traffic.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more genuinely intact vintage drive-in that was so virtually unchanged since the 1940s. But it’s gone now. (Couldn't they have moved it? Alas.)

We were among the throngs of true devotees who visited the Wheel Inn during its last few weeks in business. Below are some pictures from that time (September 2007), including our last guberburger meal. Awww, dang it. What a cool place.

. . . But change happens. It could easily have been a tornado, you know? Or a fire! (Remember the original Old Heidelberg in Columbia? They had to completely rebuild—and it’s not the same—but that’s the way it goes. We love it still.) And this way, with the Wheel Inn, we all got a chance to say goodbye, and they could sell off mementoes to their biggest fans.

~ ~ But the Wheel Inn Lives! ~ ~

I had heard that there was a “new” Wheel Inn in Sedalia, a little farther south on Highway 65, and right across from the State Fairgrounds. To be honest, I was skeptical, and that was one reason I stayed away so long: “Who are you, and what makes you think you can replicate the Wheel Inn?” It seemed almost blasphemous. Sputter, sputter, sputter!

But even though the vintage architecture was a real treat and we miss it a lot, a business is much more than its building. And yes, the Wheel Inn tradition continues.

I’m pretty sure this is only the third set of owners; the first owners, Lyman Keuper and his wife, bequeathed the Wheel Inn to their daughter and son-in-law, Ruth Ann and Jack Hawkins, who owned the Wheel Inn until the building’s demise in 2007. John Brandkamp, who owned the business, sold the Wheel Inn name, recipes, and reputation to the current owner, Judy Clark, who had worked at the Wheel Inn off and on for forty-seven years.

And so the new Wheel Inn continues with the blessing of the old owners. The rest of the pictures in this post are of the new place.

I do hope they can find a talented artist to paint a new Guber-man on their windows; their current Guber-guys look really, um, computer-generated. Oh well.

They have a lot more seating, plus plenty of parking places! I’m not sure it’s much of a “drive in” anymore, but they have a big U-shaped service counter like the old place, they’ve stuck with the red-and-white color scheme and a retro “look,” and the recipes are all the same. Hallelujah!

There are a few new items on the menu—a fried chicken salad, for instance, and a couple of “big” burgers (the “Wheel Burger” has double cheese, double meat, plus the fixin’s; the “Whimpy Burger” has triple meat and triple cheese, which I think you should avoid, unless you want a triple bypass, too).

And stuff’s gone up. Prices are higher—but then that’s the way things go. It’s still very reasonable, and you can buy food here with the change on the floor under your car seat.

No kiddin’. You can get a grilled cheese sandwich for $2.25 (two slices of cheese!) or an egg sandwich for $2.50. I bet you’ve put more than that into a big-city parking meter. The most expensive thing on the menu is “Chicken BB” for $6.10. I don’t know what that is, and anyway, you probably came here to try something else. Right?

Yes. The pièce de résistance is the famous guberburger, the steakburger with peanut butter on it. Now, this is living.

I know what you’re going to say, but before you decide I’ve lost my mind, I urge you to try one first. They use a thin patty of fresh lean chuck, top it with hot melted peanut butter, and add lettuce, tomato, and salad dressing (Miracle Whip).

The Wheel Inn is where it all began. Here’s how it happened.

Back in 1946, Lyman Keuper, the owner of the Wheel Inn, was approached by a fellow who was impressed by his curly fries (they’re called Soozie-Q Fries, by the way). They are really, really curly, and they’re thin. They’re fun to eat, and they look great.

So this fellow proposed a trade: You tell me how you make Soozie-Q fries, and I’ll give you the secret for making the best burgers ever—irresistibly delicious burgers that will make your business a sure success. . . . And the deal was made.

The guberburger became the Wheel Inn’s specialty, beloved by generations of Missourians headed to the state fair, or Kansas Citians on their way to the Lake, bikers, or any number of other folks passing through on the two highways. And they were all telling their friends, “You’ve gotta try it to believe it. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s really good!

Now—you can get “guberburgers” elsewhere in Sedalia, like Eddie’s Drive In (which we also love), but my waiter the other day assured me that there is a secret ingredient (besides the peanut butter) used in Wheel Inn’s guberburgers that makes them unique, and extra delicious. So go there, my friends, and enjoy the Real Thing.

The moral of this story is, Change happens. But if you’re lucky, the stuff that really matters, like the Original Guberburger, continues on.

(Oh, and make sure you get the Soozie-Q fries with your guberburger!)

Wheel Inn on Urbanspoon


Cedar said...

Wow! I thought it was totally gone. I'll be sure to stop there next time I go to See Dahlia (my father's favorite pun. Sorry).

Julianna Schroeder said...

"See Dahlia"!! I love it! We usually call it "Sedville," which was actually one of the names considered by the town's founder (his daughter's nickname was "Sed"). The "-alia" ending was supposedly more "euphonious," but we think "Sedville" is more fun! But See Dahlia is really good, too!

Michael said...

Another guberburger lover! Glad to hear the old place is still kicking- I had given it up for dead until I saw a flash of red down 65 a few months ago and realized they had just moved. They have great chili and, or course, the guberburger is a thing of beauty.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Well, in some ways, it isn't the "same"--I do miss the genuinely old drive-in architecture, the little metal trays that clip onto your window, turning your lights on to communicate with the carhops, and even the design of the tiny cramped restrooms.

Because I appreciate the few surviving "originals" so much, I usually disdain the "faux retro" look that many latter-day "retro diners" have used to try to "recreate" the feel of those old places.

But for the new/old Wheel Inn, I make an exception: they had no choice; it's the same as if a fire had burned the original building down.

And though there has been a passing of the torch to new owners, there is a definite continuity here. The new owners know that they're in charge of a tradition, and I sense that they're thrilled and honored to maintain it.

And I strongly encourage folks to patronize places like that.

Mike said...

As a child in the 60s, I spent many summers in Sedalia visiting my grandparents. I never got to eat at the Wheel Inn because, according to my grandmother, "the hoodlums" hung out there. We went to Eddie's instead, where I ended up working as a car hop in the summers of 70 and 71. My father had also worked there in the early 40s, although I believe at that time it was called Garst's. Anyway, thanks for the pics.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hoodlums! That's funny. I mean, was there really that big a difference in clientele between Wheel Inn and Eddie's? Hmm--maybe there was. It would take a grandma to know! And yes, by the way, Eddie's is on my list of restaurants to write about. Just haven't gotten around to it yet. I love it that you can get JELL-O there! God, I hope these kind of places don't go extinct. It would be a real tragedy.

Thanks for commenting! And I'm glad you like the pictures.


Mike said...

One place that was a childhood favorite has gone extinct - the old Tullis-Hall Dairy ice cream shop that was across the street and tracks from the old Katy station. It became an equipment rental place years ago, and as near as I can tell from Google street views the building has now been torn down. Oh well, the memory of the chocolate malts is probably better than the reality anyway.

My grandmother used to shop at Queen City Electric and Flowers Department Store downtown. It appears that Queen City Electric is still there. Any good story on what happened to Flowers?

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Mike!

I honestly don't know anything about the Tullis-Hall Dairy, specifically, but I *do* know about those KINDS of places. Like Central Dairy here in Jeff City--the original malt shops and ice cream parlors are a rare find--precious local traditions.

And I love them! Patronize them! Let the owners know how much they appreciate them!

As for Queen City Electric, and Flowers Department Store, I don't know. Maybe another reader can clue us in--? And I'll look for them next time I'm in "See Dahlia."

Thanks for the input!


swwhite.1 said...

I worked at Tullis Hall Dairy from 1973 to 1978 when it was sold to Hiland Dairy. I have many fond memories of the dairy and those who worked their. The remaining structure you see standing today is the Dairy Store and Ice Cream shop this structure at one time was a joined by the production plant directly east of the present structure they were hooked together one building. we made a full line of modern dairy products their ice creams sherbets full line of milks as well as bulk dairy products like shake mix for the restaurants etc. my Dad was a partner in the dairy from 1963 to 1974 when he died of lunge cancer . my Dad was going to build a new plant for the dairy at the time of his death but died before he could accomplish that. the dairy had a good future under the right management. I can still remember the Friday and Saturday even Sunday nights with all the people and cars lined up on 5/th street or parked at the dairy eating Ice cream malts and shakes their were also two other stores in town owned by Tullis Hall Dairy the one next to TG & Y in the east Broadway shopping center and Fresh & Rich Dairy Store in the State fair shopping center. we had about 15 trucks and delivered to around 125 miles all directions from Sedalia these were fun times and the people thats worked their were the most important asset I,ll never forget them and how they took me in after Dad`s death. when Dad died we sold our shares in the dairy which were close to controlling interest the remaining partners were focused on retirement and didnt have dad`s vision some was their age too after we sold to one of the partners they sold to Hiland in about five years 1978 was the last of the real Tullis Hall Dairy Hiland only bought the fluid milk business they had and didnt know how to run it in my opinion it was all lost had Dad a lived I,am certain Tullis Hall Dairy would still be in Sedalia as a long standing business and employing much more then they did in the 70`s and their hay day ..... Steve White Sedalia , Mo

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you, Steve, for this nice description of what happened to the dairy. Even though it's gone, it's good to keep talking about it, because it's good, and it provides a model--a legend--for today's business owners to strive for. Those kinds of places still exist--in different form, for a new generation--which is why I'm always trying to encourage people to find the locally owned, small establishments, which are run by your neighbors. Life's too short to buy your ice cream at McDonald's.

Thank you again for your nice comment.


ron6080 said...

We always stop infor a Guberburger with onion and a side of onion rings.
Ron and Patty Wing, Sioux City, IA.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Notice: I accidentally deleted a bunch of comments from my posts. Here, I try to reconstruct what I can of the ones I stupidly deleted. What a goober I am!
--Julie (6-27-11)

On 6-27-11, Anonymous commented:

My son and I have been there the last two years in a row on our way home from the lake. The food is as great as when I was a kid. It is fun to share traditions like this with our kids. I took my entire family, wife and 3 kids there last fall, first time for the wife and two daughters, the loved the place. Brings back great memories and helps build new ones. This really is a great place to eat, and share with your family.

And later on 6-27-11, I replied:

Thanks, Anon, for the comment, and a belated thanks to Ron and Patty from Sioux City!

Although the Wheel Inn is clearly on the radar for folks visiting the State Fair, I've recently been thinking of it as a stop for travelers headed to the Lake of the Ozarks, especially for those from Kansas City (and that-a-ways).

For the LOTO-bound folks arriving from *St. Louis,* the venerable Central Dairy ice cream parlor in Jeff City is a parallel "must stop" place. See here: If you're ever in JC, you have to check it out!

Thanks again for sharing your enthusiasm--I really appreciate it!